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Documents chronicle a years-long lobbying effort by the dairy industry to block plant-based alternatives from using terms such as ‘cheese’

By Zach Boren

Plant-based products could be blocked from using terms such as “cheese” or “yoghurt” to describe themselves if new guidance comes into force.

The guidance, which is still in a draft phase, is being prepared to help trading standards officers interpret and enforce laws on how dairy alternatives are described in packaging and marketing.

Documents obtained by Unearthed show that the dairy industry has lobbied for tighter enforcement of the legislation for years.

Plant-based products are already banned from describing themselves as “milk”. But an early draft, dated February 2022, suggested the new measures could see that treatment extended to cheese and yoghurt, even if prefaced by ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’. Under the draft guidance, brands would be banned from using descriptors such as ‘yoghurt-style’ or ‘cheddar-type’, or homophones or misspellings such as ‘mylk’.

The draft suggested plant-based products should even be prohibited from saying they are ‘not milk’ – or describing themselves as ‘alternatives’ to dairy products.

This week Defra wrote to plant-based companies: “responsibility for enforcement of the law on dairy labelling and marketing standards lies solely with local authorities and the Trading Standards Officers acting on their behalf”.

A spokesperson for the Food Standards Information Group, a group of senior trading standards experts who are preparing the guidance, said it aimed to support local officials in applying the laws.

David Pickering, a member of the FSIG and lead officer for food standards at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, told Unearthed: “We’re trying to come up with a fair and balanced view on what the legislation says, and if certain parts of the market don’t like that it’s up to them to lobby the government to change the legislation.”

The UK is one of the leading consumers of plant-based products in the world, with plant-based drinks seeing sales increase by 24% between 2020 and 2022 to £276 million. It now has a market share of 7%. Nearly half (48%) of UK consumers drink at least one plant-based milk alternative.

Marisa Heath, CEO of the Plant Based Food Alliance UK, said: “This move will make us one of the most draconian nations in regards to what we can and cannot call these sorts of products. 

“It does not send out the message that we are a good place for businesses to innovate, manufacture and retail in this sector and it seems odd that post Brexit we want to use EU regulations to create as much restriction and red tape on business as we can after having not enforced this for ten years.” 

“Consumers know what they are buying and they are not stupid, it should be left to them to make their choices in the supermarket.”

She pointed to a 2020 study that surveyed 155 participants and found that consumers were “no more likely to think that plant-based products come from an animal if the product’s name incorporates words traditionally associated with animal products than if it does not”.

I can’t believe it’s not butter

Dairy UK, a trade association that describes itself as the “voice of the dairy industry”, has been pushing the government for tougher guidelines for plant-based products since at least 2017. 

Leading members of Dairy UK include Arla Foods, which makes Anchor and Lurpak butter, Saputo, manufacturer of Cathedral City cheese, and yoghurt brand Müller.

Notes from a Dairy UK committee meeting in July 2017 said a representative of the association had “presented the issue of misuse of protected dairy terms and the grey area of using qualifying terms to indicate the dairy-free nature of a product” at a meeting of the Business Experts Group, a panel of food lobby groups. 

At the meeting, Dairy UK “had been tasked by Defra with developing a briefing paper on the issue to send to the UK’s Enforcement Focus Group in order to have an approved UK position paper clarifying the protection of dairy terms.” At a later Dairy UK committee meeting, “the group shared examples of dairy alternatives on the market misusing protected dairy terms”. The briefing paper was submitted a year later.

The “Enforcement Focus Group” is believed to be a reference to the Food Standards and Information Focus Group (FSIG), an advisory group for local authorities made up of senior trading standards officials. 

The group started work on the subject in 2020 in response to a referral from a regional group. A spokesperson told Unearthed the FSIG has consulted Dairy UK as it liaises with the  Business Experts Group. 

The FSIG produced a draft opinion in early 2022, which recommended greater enforcement on the restrictions of terms that can be used to market plant-based food and drink so that consumers do not falsely assume “nutritional equivalence” with dairy products. 

The FSIG and Defra communicated over the following months, with members of the focus group saying they believe this to be “a policy issue” for the government to take a position on.

Dairy UK provided a position paper to Defra in November last year, backing the FSIG’s draft proposals and urging the government to maintain the protection of dairy terms in the Retained EU Law Bill.

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Dairy UK argues that allusions to dairy will mislead consumers as to plant-based products’ nutritional profile, describing the terms used as “marketing malpractice.”

Cecilia McAleavey, public affairs director of Oatly, said: “The introduction of further restrictions does not provide clarity for consumers. It makes it harder for people to seek out alternatives to dairy and hampers their ability to make informed choices when it comes to their food and drink.” 

Dr Judith Bryans, chief executive of Dairy UK, said: “The opinion issued by the FSIFG is an interpretation of existing law and does not propose to add new rules – it is intended to make labelling and marketing clearer and minimise opportunities for consumers to be misled.” 

“Both the FSIFG and Defra have been in contact with a number of interested parties, including the plant-based sector. We have not had any undue influence on this process, we simply expressed our opinion in favour of the FSISG interpretation of existing law.”

“The existing law is a reflection of the fact that dairy foods are unique in their nutrient richness and an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet and cannot be replaced by alternative imitations.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “The legal power to enforce longstanding dairy marketing and labelling laws lies with local authorities, and it is simply untrue that Defra has exercised any influence in this area.”

Spilled milk

If local authorities were to choose the strictest interpretations of the new guidance, this would mean taking a tougher stance than either the European Union or the US. 

Under a 2017 ruling by the European Court of Justice, plant-based brands are banned from using terms such as “milk”, “butter” or “cheese”. But a stricter set of rules, Amendment 171, which could have blocked vegan products from using descriptions such as “creamy”, was dropped by the European Parliament following fierce opposition from the plant-based sector and green NGOs. 

In guidance released earlier this year, the US Food and Drug Administration allowed for the use of the word ‘milk’ when describing plant-based drinks, though it recommends the voluntary disclosure of nutritional differences. 

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